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Rubble and Rage in Jerusalem: Israeli Bulldozers and the Broken Homes They Leave Behind

Punitive home demolitions all but stopped after 2005, when an Israeli military study found that the practice failed to serve as a meaningful deterrent to violence. Now they're back.
Photo by Alice Speri/ VICE News

All that's left of the Shaludi family home is rubble. On one of the few remaining walls, scraps of baby-blue wallpaper with Mickey and Minnie Mouse floating on hot-hair balloons mark where the boys used to sleep. The crumbling wall of the girls' room bears the word love, scrawled in a child's hand but from right to left, as if in Arabic.

The tiny apartment sits in the poor and densely populated Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, a favela-like pile of homes near one of the most contested pieces of real estate on Earth: the Temple Mount. The Shaludi residence was blasted open here in November when Israeli authorities demolished it in retaliation for an attack perpetrated by the family's eldest son, Abdel Rahman Shaludi. Last October, he rammed a car into a crowd of pedestrians in a different neighborhood of the city, killing a three-month-old girl and a young woman from Ecuador.


Punitive home demolitions were a token of Israeli policy against outbursts of Palestinian resistance for years, peaking during the Second Intifada of the early 2000s. But they all but stopped after 2005, when an Israeli military study found that the practice failed to serve as a meaningful deterrent to violence.

According to the policy's defenders, the threat of demolition would persuade family members of potential attackers to turn their relatives over to the authorities. But the military commission found that this had worked in only about 20 cases, at a time when more than 660 demolitions had taken place. If anything, the critics observed, the practice only fans the flames of resentment, punishing innocent people, leaving behind bitter siblings, and exposing entire families to the potential of radicalization.

Demolitions also earn Israel no friends, as the practice is prohibited under the Geneva Convention and has been condemned by the international community. Human rights groups worldwide have denounced it as an illegal form of "collective punishment" and, in occupied territory like East Jerusalem, as a "war crime." The US State Department has called the policy "counterproductive."

Despite the objections of the international community and even the Israeli military, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revived the practice under the banner of the "get-tough-on-Palestinians" rhetoric that has marked his legacy. The policy has only exacerbated tensions in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967 and claims as part of its "undivided capital," though Palestinians envision it as the capital of their future state.


The Shaludi home was the third one to go following Netanyahu's revival of the policy.

"Netanyahu thinks that by making violence on the Palestinians, he will make peace," Enas Shaludi, Abdel Rahman's mother, told VICE News in November, standing where a wall used to separate her children's bedrooms from the living room, while her and relatives' kids played among the rubble as if it were a jungle-gym. "He doesn't know that violence will create more violence."

Police shot Abdel Rahman dead on the scene of his car attack — which his family maintains was an accident, as they say he had been depressed and confused following his several encounters with the Shin Bet, Israel's state security agency. A few days later, officers showed up at the small apartment he had shared with his parents and five siblings. They took measurements and left.

Then, within weeks, the Shaludis received a demolition notice that gave them 48 hours to pack up their home and find another. This happened on a Friday, right before courts closed for the weekend, Enas noted — not that the family would have had much legal recourse anyway. In the decades of demolitions, only one appeal was ever successful, in 1993.

"The father of the family did not want to go to court or be represented," Lea Tzemel, a prominent Israeli lawyer who defends Palestinians in military courts and offered to help the family, told VICE News. "He does not believe in the Israeli justice system."


The following Wednesday, scores of armed officers arrived at the Shaludis' home in the middle of the night.

"They ordered everyone in the building to move out, even the babies, the old men, and women," Enas said. "They gave us only five minutes to get dressed. They didn't even let us go to the bathroom before we left."

The family and neighbors were dragged to a tent set up by the officers nearby, where they heard a loud explosion and saw light and dust flickering from the direction of their home. When they were finally allowed back, they found their apartment smoldering and their neighbors' homes turned upside down, Enas said. The furniture had been knocked over, the drawers emptied, and someone had urinated on a child's bed.

Days afterward, a concrete block that had landed on a neighbor's car parked by the building was still there.

"Violence here in Jerusalem is increasing, among both the settlers and the Palestinians," Enas said, referring to the hundreds of Jewish Israelis who in recent years have moved into the Palestinian side of the city, buying or building homes in territory that the international community considers occupied. Palestinians call them settlers, but they see themselves as fulfilling a manifest destiny, which for the most part Israeli authorities have enabled.

"But they punish only the Palestinians, not the settlers," she added. Two Palestinian men who abducted and killed three young settlers earlier this year, leading to a massive manhunt that reignited the conflict in the West Bank and Jerusalem and precipitated the events that led to the Gaza war, were executed and their homes destroyed. Yet the Israelis who abducted and killed Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem whose murder by immolation led to an increase in attacks and retaliations continuing to this day, were only arrested.


"They didn't demolish their houses," Enas said. The demolition law doesn't apply to Jewish Israelis found guilty of attacks on Palestinians.

Israeli officials, who maintain the demolitions are meant as a deterrent, not a punishment, said Jewish violence is not widespread enough to warrant such measures. "Abu Khdeir is a shocking case. But there's no widespread occurrence that's necessary to deter in the Jewish sector," Aner Hellman, an Israeli state prosecutor, told the High Court of Justice after the reinstatement of the policy was legally challenged by eight human rights groups. "If it's not intended for deterrence, the clause shouldn't be implemented."

'Netanyahu thinks that by making violence on the Palestinians, he will make peace. He doesn't know that violence will create more violence.'

Expecting little of a system she said is not designed to protect her, Enas took the loss of her home as stoically as she did that of her son. She distributed her family's few belongings among relatives and found hospitality with her brother. One of her main preoccupations, as she spoke with me, was making sure that the kids playing on what used to be a veranda, now wall-less and visibly slanted, wouldn't fall down onto the street four stories below.

Her children, she said, "understand" what's happening. And they have seen it all before. While punitive demolitions have just resumed in Jerusalem, home demolitions of a more bureaucratic nature have continued relentlessly for the past several years. They spiked in recent months as municipal authorities cracked down on residents building without construction permits.


While most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens, they fall under the authority of Jerusalem's Israeli officials and the city's complex — and discriminatory, Palestinians say — zoning laws. Applications for residential building permits can cost up to $5,000, take years to process, and are usually rejected.

But bureaucracy can't fully trounce demographics, and as Palestinian families have continued to grow, people have taken to building without authorization, or to adding floors to buildings that are already there. With increasing regularity, authorities will send demolition notices followed by bulldozers, then bills for those bulldozers as families without permits are held accountable for the cost of the demolitions.

It's not unusual for people without the money to resort to destroying their homes themselves, taking them down with hammers, one brick at a time.

That's been the case for many homes in Silwan. Khaled Zeer, a father of six girls, watched his house, on a green hill with a beautiful view of the Dome of the Rock, be destroyed twice in two years, and he temporarily moved his family to a cave in the area that was strikingly reminiscent of a Nativity scene. Zeer told VICE News that the demolitions are a deliberate attempt to drive Palestinians out of their neighborhoods as more settlers come in.

Like his home, many houses in East Jerusalem are condemned. The punitive demolitions add to the anger but pale in comparison to urban policies whose violence is more sanitized and methodical: Jerusalem has razed more than 3,000 Palestinian homes since 2000.

"They understand our plight, because we are living in Silwan," Enas said of her children, pointing to a hill full of homes like hers across the street. "They saw many houses demolished in this area. "The Israelis are going to smash all these houses."

Photos by Alice Speri/VICE News

This article is featured in the January Issue of VICE.